Motor sport and the importance of ‘natural succession’

Depending on where you were in the world during MotoGP’s season opening Grand Prix of Qatar, you were either a little bleary-eyed or super fresh. Either way, you would have caught Valentino Rossi’s storming return to the Yamaha factory team after two miserable seasons at Ducati.

During his stint with the Italian team in 2011 and 2012, Rossi scored as many podiums in 36 races as he did in his first three races of the 2010 season for Yamaha. Prior, of course, to a horrid crash at Mugello that put him out of action from four rounds and took him out of championship contention against the ‘intruder’ at Yamaha; Jorge Lorenzo.

Not only did those ‘character building’ (isn’t that what a bad experience is supposed to do to us?) years at Ducati somewhat bust the theory of a rider’s contribution to a race result being as much as 80 percent, but they also hit the popularity of the world’s premier motorcycle racing category.

It wasn’t as if MotoGP was full of only Rossi fanatics. Fans of the championship had been used to the arrival, domination and departure of numerous riding legends.

From the time I recall the sport taking off in India, Mick Doohan drew as ardent fans as Rossi has until his time in MotoGP came to a natural conclusion and the torch was ‘handed over’ to Rossi.

It’s a fine metaphor; handing over the torch. Few people actually do it with a smile on their face in any walk of life. Especially not sportspersons.

Pete Sampras suffered a brief dip in form before leaving the tennis world for the likes of Roger Federer to take control of. Michael Schumacher fought tooth and nail to deny Fernando Alonso taking over his mantle of the most complete Formula 1 driver.

Both eventually faded and their respective audiences accepted the theory of ‘natural succession’ at work because there was someone to fill the void they left.

In the case of F1, it was filled and then some by an entire generation of hungry young chargers. To the point that Schumacher’s problematic comeback did little to distract from the fight for supremacy between the likes of Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

MotoGP fans were, however, denied a similar natural succession when Rossi left the Yamaha team he had become synonymous with. As far as they were concerned, the most successful and charismatic rider had taken himself out of the game in his attempt to find his ‘own team’ after Lorenzo’s arrival at Yamaha.

It mattered little to them that Rossi was regularly being beaten by the rider he famously overcame at Laguna Seca’s iconic Corkscrew in 2008 (Casey Stoner). Or that Lorenzo won his second title in the premier MotoGP class last year.

Rossi’s 2010 campaign had been compromised severely by his crash and the Ducati was no match for the Honda and Yamaha machines in ’11 and ’12.

A natural succession had not occurred and so MotoGP with Rossi struggling to finish sixth or seventh was not worth their time. Apparently not worth ’07 and ’11 champion Stoner’s either who retired at the end of last year! On a serious note, that’s an entirely different story.

But Rossi back on a Yamaha and slicing his way past Cal Crutchlow, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez with only Lorenzo to beat? Now that’s more like it.

If Rossi hasn’t lost any of his speed and skill, then he deserves to be back at the head of the field dominating the proceedings or truly getting beaten by a rider on equal (or close to it) machinery.

Should ‘The Doctor’ decide to hang up his stethoscope while being as competitive as he possibly can, fans will accept the void that needs to be filled rather than a hastily filled up pothole.

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Are Mercedes really the ‘Manchester City of Formula 1’?

The lighthearted comparison to the ‘other’ English Premier League club from Manchester is not one I can lay claim to using first. A LOT of people beat me to it when Mercedes AMG F1 went on a bit of a spending spree after deciding to not continue with the vastly improved (if mistake-prone) Michael Schumacher last October even though the seven-time champion had lost a ton of points and potentially three podium finishes through no fault of his own.

Not satisfied with luring Lewis Hamilton away from McLaren, the team snagged Toto Wolff from Williams to replace Norbert Haug and McLaren’s technical director Paddy Lowe is also due to join the team from next year.

Which certainly suggests some truth to the comparison to the free-spending club as it will now see the likes of Aldo Costa, Geoff Willis and Bob Bell be joined by Lowe in the technical department.

Costa, Willis and Bell were responsible for this year’s Mercedes W04 and have all, at some point in their careers, been technical directors at big F1 outfits at some point in their careers. Costa with Ferrari, Willis with British American Racing (which became Honda) and Bell with Renault where his cars won consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 2005 and 2006.

All of this tech (in the case of Wolff; administrative) talent surely comes at a price. Which should make the team’s budget for 2013 of some interest to F1 observers. Teams usually keep such information to themselves but it has been estimated that Mercedes spent 146 million euros last year. Which is well short of Red Bull’s estimated 250 million euro budget for 2012.

Which certainly debunks the Man. City comparison in terms of outright spending. Even with their relatively ‘modest’ budget, Mercedes were believed to have outspent Lotus F1 last year. The latter got a major boost thanks to Kimi Raikkonen’s storming comeback and outscored Mercedes by 161 points to take fourth place in the constructors’ standings ahead of them.

Although their talent acquisition spree will almost certainly reflect in this season’s budget.

Still, given the team’s underwhelming on-track performance (for various reasons) and the fact that Man. City actually showed tangible improvement due to its own spending spree (won the Premier League title last year), the case of Mercedes is something else entirely.

With the likes of Dieter Zetsche, Niki Lauda, Wolff calling the shots on an administrative level and Ross Brawn, Bell, Willis, Costa and soon Lowe on the technical side, the team seems to have an extreme case of way too many cooks in an extremely cramped kitchen.

And having to deal with the resulting broth are Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. It’s a stark contrast to the situation at the team that was briefly Mercedes’ closest rival, but has now shot way past it. I.e. Lotus.

With Gerard Lopez behind the desk, Eric Bouillier on the pitwall, James Allison in charge of the car and Raikkonen as the unquestionable leader behind the wheel, there seems to be a very solid case study in how to go about racing in F1. Especially considering the team’s modest resources as compared to Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren; all of whom the team beat convincingly in Melbourne.

Haug and Schumacher have been skimmed out of Mercedes’ extremely thick broth, how many others before the team starts to live up to its much hyped ‘Silver Arrows’ moniker?

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You know Formula 1 folk are getting jumpy when…

We’re less than a month away from pre-season testing for the 2013 Formula 1 season to kick off and the back and forth between possible championship contenders has already begun.

Last year’s runner-up Fernando Alonso – by just three points in a time when the difference between first and second place is seven – took to Twitter to respond to Red Bull Racing tipping him and Ferrari to be their biggest obstacle to a fourth straight double of the drivers’ and constructors’ crown.

I enjoy reading that redbull still think we will be the strongest rival for next year! And this even before start testing!! Flattered..;)

The Spaniard has taken a liking to the micro-blogging site and when he isn’t busy dropping ‘samurai wisdom’, weighing in on on-track battles (Nico Rosberg in Bahrain) he often provides a lot of insight into the training regimen of F1 drivers by posting his workout summaries.

All in all it’s one of the more interesting F1 Twitter handles to follow although it’s not really a substitute for seeing the actual emotions of drivers in the heat of competition. Of which we are to get a preview as teams head out to test their 2013 machinery.

So far four teams have confirmed the launch dates of their challengers.

McLaren – January 31st, Ferrari and Force India – February 1st and Sauber – February 2nd.

Of these teams only Force India is yet to confirm its driver-line up for this year with only Paul Di Resta confirmed as one of the drivers.

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Formula 1 2012 review: in talking points

More than anything the 2012 Formula 1 season will be remembered for being the third straight season in the sport where it wasn’t engulfed by a major off-track controversy. Sure there was Bahrain’s contentious return, talk of an F1 floatation, speculation galore about Bernie Ecclestone’s and indeed F1’s future. However, nothing that made bigger news than the racing itself. Think of this running counter as the notice board in some workshops that list the number of days that have passed without an accident!

Hopefully F1’s counter will run long beyond the three that it is at now. In the meantime, here are some on-track stories that were worth remembering.

1) Sebastian Vettel: It’s true; statistics don’t tell the full story. Even so, Sebastian Vettel’s F1 career stats make for incredible reading. 101 races, 26 wins, 46 podiums, 36 pole positions and three successive world championships. By all means, laud Fernando Alonso’s incredible determination and acknowledge Lewis Hamilton’s bad fortune but take nothing away from the 25-year-old German’s speed, consistency and ability to make the most out of being at one of the best run (and most well-funded) team on the grid.

2) Adrian Newey: During the Indian Grand Prix, seasoned F1 journalists acknowledged that should Red Bull take both titles again, it would be Newey’s greatest triumph as it was achieved after he “had his toys taken away from him.” They were referring to the FIA banning off-throttle blown diffusers and re-position the exhaust outlets on cars for 2012 following the team’s complete domination of the 2011 season. The fact that Red Bull were able to out-develop their rivals in the second half of the season yet again was as much down to their ballooning budget as Newey’s skill as an F1 designer that was evident during his stints at Williams and McLaren too.

3) Fernando Alonso: The Spaniard’s ability to drive well-beyond his car’s capabilities had been on display since his 2008 return to Renault. And yet the double world champion still left fans and journalists shaking their heads in disbelief. Especially after his wins at Sepang and Valencia. His pearls of ‘samurai wisdom’ on Twitter added another layer in Alonso’s gritty championship campaign. Even if you’re not registered on the micro-blogging site, this is a Twitter handle worth keeping an eye on.

4) McLaren ‘falling apart’: The team isn’t undergoing a crisis but reliability issues and pit-stop gaffes hampered the championship campaigns of Jenson Button, and in particular, Lewis Hamilton who at many points of the season looked the man to beat for 2012. It’s been a series of ‘what-ifs’ after Hamilton’s title win in 2008 as he sets off to try and breathe some life into Mercedes AMG. After being outscored 672 points to 657 by Button in their three seasons as teammates (10 wins to Hamilton, 8 to Button) Hamilton may think he’ll have a teammate to assert his authority on in Nico Rosberg. However, renowned racing driver coach Rob Wilson has warned people against writing off the 2005 GP2 champion’s chances against the man he competed against in F3 Euroseries with some success.

5) Resurgent Massa: The man who lost the 2008 drivers’ title at the last corner of the last lap of the season seemed to finally wake up from the after-effects of his near career-ending accident in Hungary in 2009. Massa was a lightning rod for criticism before the summer break, after which he scored 97 of his season tally 122 points over the final nine races of the year. It went a long way in helping Ferrari beat McLaren to second place in the constructors’ standings. May sound like fighting over scraps but the difference between the amount of money awarded from the annual prize fund is in excess of $10 million. Every small fortune counts in F1.

6) Lotus blooms: It says something about how unexpected the success of Lotus through Kimi Raikkonen’s superb comeback was when the team couldn’t pay the Finn his bonus on time. The team formerly known as Renault (formerly known as Benetton, formerly known as Toleman) publicly admitted that it didn’t expect Raikkonen to score as many points as he did, let alone win the Abu Dhabi GP while dropping one of the best bits of driver to team interactions of all time. Lotus must be breathing a sigh of relief at having secured the services of a bonafide F1 superstar to carry them forward in the wake of Robert Kubica’s horrific rallying crash. Even if it is only for 2013 as of now.

7) Mercedes’ disappearing act: Michael Schumacher’s qualifying performances in the first third of the season and Nico Rosberg’s win in China and strong second place at Monaco must have had the team thinking that third place in the constructors’ standings was a distinct possibility. However, Schumacher became a magnet for not only mistakes by the team but also unreliability that saw the team lose out on anywhere from 50 to 60 points, by team principal Ross Brawn’s own admission. Rosberg admitted that the team hit a wall in terms of competitiveness after Valencia where both he and Schumacher were the fast enough to overcome the W03’s consistent tyre wear issues in the final segment of a thrilling race. Whether this was because the focus shifted to 2013 (and more importantly 2014) or because the team fell behind is immaterial at this point. And perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise that Norbert Haug announced that he was stepping down as Mercedes’ motorsport chief after 22 years.

8) Seven different flavours: Would you have believed it if someone told you that seven drivers from five teams would win the first seven races of the season while watching Vettel pound the field into submission in 2011? The banning of off-throttle blown diffusers and the tweaking of Pirelli’s tyre compounds meshed perfectly with a field of extremely talented drivers at varying stages of their careers. Raikkonen’s win pushed the season tally of different podium toppers to eight but Sergio Perez and Schumacher could have easily pushed it to ten. Hopefully F1’s powers that be will further push aerodynamic equalization and budget capping.

9) Midfield might: It was a year when Sauber and Force India were on the verge of winning a race on merit and when Williams recovered from the rubble of the 2011 season to perform strong (depending on which Pastor Maldonado turned up at a race weekend). Not to mention that both those teams featured renowned drivers with excellent records in F1’s ladder series, as shown by Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg. Sauber and Force India have also been successful in building loyal fan bases, which bodes well for them in the future, especially if making a profit out of involvement in F1 can be made easier than it is at the moment.

10) Austintatious: There are some countries that deserve an F1 round and others that the sport’s powers-that-be feel need to be a part of the calendar. The United States of America is a country that falls in both categories. The on-track and off-track success of the US Grand Prix in Austin could lead to American fans needing F1 to be a part of the country’s diverse and vibrant motorsport scene. It’s well down the line, of course, especially since races like the 1991 and 2005 edition are still fresh in people’s memories. However, the natural growth of F1’s popularity paired with further steps to make the racing closer and cars more environmentally advanced could lead to a purple in the sport’s history.

On that hopeful note, here’s wishing all motorsport fans a Happy New Year.

Happy trails everybody (even though it’s non-F1)!

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“The new engines are not going to be silent…”


I spoke recently to the FIA’s F1 Race Director, Charlie Whiting.  What does he think about the new engine regs for 2014?  And what, indeed, does he think about the F1 life?

I find Charlie Whiting in his second home – in the office at any given Race Control building in any given F1 track of the world that bears the title, “Race Director”.  We happen, on this occasion, to be in Austin, Texas, where the new Hermann Tilke-finished Circuit of Americas is undergoing its baptism by fire.  And this is about the only time of the weekend when Charlie has a moment or two in which to chat.  It is the lull after qualifying on Saturday.  The F1 cars are in Parc Ferme conditions (under wraps in the team garages).  And, baring the odd technical political or technical crisis or two (or three), Charlie can relax just a…

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Max Biaggi retirement means the bikes are now the stars in WSBK

I’ll put it out there that I am not the keenest follower or fan of two-wheel racing. Ten years ago, following the events of MotoGP and the Superbike World Championship (WSBK) were as important to me as those of the World Rally Championship and Formula 1.

One of the reasons why the focus has shifted primarily to F1 – and WRC to an extent – is purely personal. I want a bit of a life! Following motorsport is fun and all but it feels good to have days entirely to myself to go out cycling, play basketball and other activities that don’t involve cars, bikes, computers and televisions.

The other reason is what seems to be the diluting of what was once an entertaining as well as a significant championship.

With MotoGP switching to a 990cc, two-stroke format in 2002, going down to 800cc and now up to 1,000cc a lot of WSBK’s thunder seemed to have been stolen.

Gone were the days when the two championships had their own distinct flavour and hence their own set of star riders. With its focus on racing tuned motorcycles that are available to the public, WSBK arguably had a greater audience connect. MotoGP had already established itself as the pinnacle of two-wheel racing due to the bikes used being prototypes. With the higher engine capacity, the F1 of two-wheels had now started to infringe on the territory of two-wheel racing’s equivalent of sportscar racing.

This was evident in 2003 when WSBK’s two biggest stars of the time – Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss – defected to MotoGP after a thrilling championship showdown the year before.

Edwards has remained in MotoGP ever since while Bayliss went back to a WSBK in 2006 that seemed to have lost a lot of sheen and had, in effect, become something of a feeder series for MotoGP.

With both championships now coming under the banner of MotoGP’s commercial rights holder Dorna Sports, one can hardly expect much in the way of change in the status quo.

Especially since WSBK’s most recent star, 41-year-old Max Biaggi, has now decided to call time on his motorcycle racing career after winning 21 races and two titles (2010 and 2012) in his six-year stint.

Biaggi gained fame as a four time Grand Prix champion in the 250cc class and for losing out on the MotoGP title to Mick Doohan and more famously, two-wheel racing’s current superstar Valentino Rossi.

It certainly couldn’t have been the best advertisement for the riders currently in WSBK, which includes MotoGP ‘dropout’ Marco Melandri.

As far as the championship’s attraction to fans goes, Biaggi’s retirement puts the focus squarely on the machinery in WSBK. Given India’s two-wheeler market – that is far bigger than four wheels in terms of volume – seeing crazy riders astride superbike brands that are available for sale to the public should ensure that WSBK gain a fairly solid fanbase when it touches down at the Buddh International Circuit next March.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s involvement with a team in WSBK’s Supersport support category should play its part in drawing some media attention too.

However, the days of WSBK’s star attraction being names like Corser, Bayliss, Fogarty and Edwards are long gone, for the time being.

As are memorable duels like Imola 2002 (see vid below but apologies for music, full race video also available).

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McLaren and Mercedes partnership to continue

According to a report in British newspaper The Daily Mail the McLaren Formula 1 team will retain it’s engine partnership with Mercedes-Benz ‘for years to come’. The team principal of the second most successful team in F1 history stated so in an interview ahead of the recently concluded Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The partnership that had started in 1995 (first victory in 1997 Australian GP, see vid below) was the subject of much speculation after a report in German automotive magazine Auto Motor und Sport suggested that Honda was keen on an F1 return in 2014. It was rumored that the Japanese engine manufacturer was keen to tie up with McLaren after the British team after it became a customer team following Mercedes’ purchase of the Brawn GP team in 2009.

Mercedes had tried, in vain, to acquire a majority ownership of McLaren for a large part of its partnership with the team, especially after rivals BMW did the same with Sauber F1 before leaving the sport at the end of 2009.

The McLaren-Mercedes partnership has won the team three drivers’ titles (1998, 1999, 2008) and one constructors’ title (1998). Both parties were recently involved in a high-profile shake-up of the drivers’ market as Lewis Hamilton left McLaren to replace the retiring Michael Schumacher at Mercedes.

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The man who could call the first F1 champion ‘awful’ passes away

This is a bit delayed as 39 straight days of work, which included covering the recently concluded Indian Grand Prix caused me to take it easy to the point that I kept my computer off and didn’t log on to the Internet to do anything more than check my emails.

Former American racing driver, John Fitch, passed away this Wednesday near the Lime Rock racing circuit in Connecticut, USA.

When it came to racing and safety (or road safety in general), Fitch is a name you may not have heard of. Names like Jackie Stewart and Sid Watkins may come to mind more due to their association with the high profile world of Formula 1. But overlooking Fitch, who was 95 when he passed away, would be a mistake.

Fitch only competed in two F1 world championship races, but that is only an indication of how much more there is to motor racing than F1, which is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as motorsport is concerned.

He devised the Fitch Barrier, which is a standard feature on pretty much every American highway. If you recall a scene from the Keanu Reeves movie ‘Speed’ where a Jaguar XJS crashes into a water-filled yellow barrier at the exit of a highway; that would be the Fitch Barrier in action.

Specifically to racing, he also developed the Fitch Compression Barrier, which is used extensively at oval tracks and in its design is the forerunner to the Tecpro barrier that you now see used at the latest F1 grade circuits like the Buddh International Circuit.

His safety innovations aside, Fitch was also one hell of a racing driver as his record suggests. By his own admission, his greatest motorsport achievement came at the 1955 Mile Miglia (Italian for thousand miles) when he won the production sports car category and was beaten only by the racing prototypes that had drivers like Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio behind the wheel.

He finished as high as third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans where he competed six times as well.

While I was too young (by a long way!) to ever see any of these exploits in person, I did have the pleasure of meeting Fitch at the 2006 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance where I asked him about racing in F1 during the world championship’s infancy in the early 1950s.

Given his extensive experience, Fitch was in a position to honestly dish out on Grand Prix racing’s stars of the time.

“He was awful, just awful!” was Fitch’s take on Giuseppe Farina, the sport’s first world champion. “He was a real dirty driver who didn’t care about who was on the road with him.”

Fitch spoke in awe of five-time F1 champ Fangio but noted that he was not a driver to take lightly. “Fangio could race really hard,” said Fitch. “He didn’t race dirty but you had to watch yourself going up against him.”

The most praise was set aside for Britain’s Stirling Moss, who scored 16 pole positions and 18 wins without ever winning an F1 title. “He was a real gentleman,” said Fitch. “He would always race fair.”

I confess, that at the time, I wasn’t entirely up to speed on Fitch’s contribution to motorsport’s colourfully rich story but the experience of talking to a man who experienced motor racing’s most high-profile addiction in its beginning was surreal in itself.

Fitch’s contributions to motorsport goes beyond just numbers and for that, those involved in the sport today should be thankful.

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One more year for Raikkonen at Lotus F1

The 2007 Formula 1 world champion made an ‘announcement’ 12 days ago on his 33rd birthday with the creative use of a video on youtube.

While entertaining, it wasn’t the announcement that many in F1 expected. It was confirmed today, however, that the Finn will remain with Lotus F1 for one more season in 2013.

There have been rumors of the team’s (formerly known as Renault and Benetton before that) owners Genii Capital are running a little light in their wallets and as a result, the team may not be as competitive as it was in the early stages of this season.

Given Raikkonen’s superlative comeback this year (third in the championship with six podiums) a one year extension indicates that the Finn doesn’t see his long-term future with Lotus F1. Whether its because he harbours ambitions to be back in a championship contending team from 2014 or due to Genii’s supposed financial difficulties will remain to be seen.

The upheaval in this year’s drivers’ market has all but died down – an announcement regarding Hulkenberg and maybe even Adrian Sutil could be likely – and Raikkonen was pretty much left out.

Ferrari’s Felipe Massa is the other top driver who got a one-year contract extension this year. It’s not too far a stretch to speculate about a return to Ferrari for the Finn, but let’s leave that one for official announcements.

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Stewart on 2014 regulations

In a fairly long telephone interview (pleasantly surprised at the time he was able to set aside), three-time Formula 1 world champion weighed in on the proposed 2014 technical regulations.

The topic was only briefly touched on but personally it was a relief to know that Stewart doesn’t oppose the regulations, but questions only the timing.

On the face of it, an engine formula that cuts fuel economy while retaining current power levels and has relevance for the automobile industry that forms the backbone of motorsports can only be a good thing. Hopefully the timing of the move won’t be an issue.

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